More men need to take paternity leave -- even if it hurts their careers

Paternity leave helps families and can hurt men's careers. This is exactly why more men need to do it

Published November 10, 2014 6:17PM (EST)

    (Reuters/Prashanth Vishwanathan)
(Reuters/Prashanth Vishwanathan)

It’s been two decades since Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, a law that requires companies with more than 50 employees to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents. And while it’s nice and all to have a law that says you can’t be fired just because you need to take time off to care for your newborn, many families can’t afford to go three months without pay. And nearly half of American workers are employed by smaller companies that don’t need to comply with the law in the first place.

The United States needs universal paid parental leave because balanced parenting shouldn’t be a luxury good. But as the movement advocating for such a policy advances, and while we still have a piecemeal system in place that leaves the matter of paid leave almost entirely up to employers, we need more men to start staying home with their kids and making the case for paid paternity leave to their bosses and colleagues.

This weekend, the New York Times had a great, expansive piece on paternity leave that makes the impact of this kind of shift clear. Writing for the Upshot, Claire Cain Miller looked at the issue from all angles -- economic, cultural, personal, policy -- to show the benefits and potential consequences some men face after taking leave. One data point among the many she covered stood out:

Peer influence can change workplace culture, too, according to a study published in the American Economic Review in July. The study found that when a man’s co-workers took paternity leave, it increased the chance that he would take it by 11 percentage points — and that if his brother took it, by 15 points. Co-workers might share information about costs and benefits, like how their bosses reacted to paternity leave, and the effect snowballs over time as the information spreads.

So did a quote from Scott Colrane, a sociologist who studies fatherhood and told the Times, “If men are asking for more stuff, it can help make the workplace more kid-friendly.”

For a really long time, the conversation around “having it all” centered on what women do. Are we leaning out or leaning in? Are we negotiating right? What are the policies we need to make our lives easier and ensure that we can support ourselves and our families? But it seems that we are only at the earliest stages of having that conversation about men. To talk about what they need to be doing in all of this -- to advocate for themselves as parents, to increase their participation in caregiving, to disrupt destructive gender norms and help put a system into place where becoming a parent doesn't threaten your ability to make a living and support your family.

As Cain Miller noted, social scientists who study the issue have found that men who are active in their children’s lives from the start are more likely than other fathers to stay involved as their families grow. This kind of balance in the home benefits their partners, too. Research has also shown that women whose husbands took leave have improved career earnings and mental health outcomes in the nine months after the baby is born.

I asked a friend who took two months of paternity leave after his first child was born what that time meant for his family, in the immediate and long term. “When our first child was born, my wife was in graduate school and I was lucky enough to get a really good paternity leave,” he said. “That meant that I spent the first two months of my son's life feeding, changing diapers, figuring out why he was crying (and how to stop it), managing nap schedules and hanging out together all day.”

My friend’s son is four now, and his second kid just turned one. He credits those first few months of parenting with making him the kind of dad he is today. “It was really hard work, but I'm glad I did it because I have those skills now and am a much more involved parent than a lot of my male friends -- or I otherwise might have been.”

But norms around caregiving and breadwinning in this country mean that men, like women, are often penalized for taking paternity leave, whether it’s paid or unpaid. In researching the possible consequences of men taking paternity leave, Coltrane, the sociologist who studies fatherhood, found that men, on average, lost 15.5 percent in earnings over their careers when they lessened their hours to spend more time with their families. They have also been found to receive more negative evaluations and lower raises.

But rather than this being an argument against paternity leave, it's one of the strongest arguments for it. Radical social shifts don't come easily, and women should not be expected to bear these costs on their own. As the conversation about paid family leave advances, and as more parents are able to take this kind of time, the penalties may lessen as employers learn to incorporate work/family balance into how they view workers and productivity. But until we have cultural norms and policies that erase or at least ease those burdens, if feminism really is about equality, they have to be spread around. Men need to take up their fair share, too.


By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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